Review: Robert Phillips – Trust Me, PR Is Dead

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After a year or so of trolling the PR industry about its ‘inevitable demise’, Robert Phillips has published his second book, Trust Me, PR is Dead.

As one of the 250 people that ‘supported’ the book on Unbound, the crowdfunding publisher, I received an electronic version a few days ago, ahead of the hardback copy in March (I’m told). And now having read it, I find myself agreeing with more than I anticipated and much of what Robert said.

That is, perhaps, because Phillips didn’t reveal the whole story about his latest work – something he chastises organisations for in its pages – it isn’t simply about public relations and what he describes as its point of no return, it has a much wider remit that encompasses trust, leadership, business, politics and society too.

 

Robert Phillips: Trust Me, PR Is Dead Review

“If he had been alive today, Aristotle would no doubt have been an advocate of Public Leadership as we are beginning to understand it.”

It’s a bold man who claims his, some would call radical, re-imagining of business and communications would be championed by Aristotle, but then boldness was never Robert’s problem.

Trust Me, PR Is Not A Profession

 

He is quick to deride those who describe PR as a profession, and he’s right to! Only around one-in-six people working in the UK PR industry are signed up to either the CIPR or PRCA code of conduct and fewer still are engaged in Continuing Professional Development (CPD). There are no qualifications, nor examinations required to become a public relations practitioner and while it’s not an amateur industry, Robert is correct in pointing out the lack of talent, knowledge and understanding that brings into junior PR roles.

Data and measurement too feature heavily, and again I find myself in agreement with the author, we have been too slow to embrace data, too slow to adopt meaningful measurement metrics that prove our value to clients. This is nothing particularly new or shocking.

Trust, Transparency and Truth

 

The evolution of business in the age of social media has been dramatic. It has revolutionised the way we do business and the way we communicate. It has helped usher in an ecosystem where truth and transparency, not content, is king.

As Robert says, it is no longer acceptable to ‘wallpaper over the cracks of an organisation’, no longer justifiable to ‘put lipstick on pigs’. The rise of the empowered citizen – he claims – has necessitated the move from public relations – through public engagement, the model Phillips used to modernise Edelman before his departure – to Public Leadership.

What is Public Leadership?

 

According to Robert, Public Leadership is activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first – which despite frequently criticising the use of soundbites, he takes great pleasure in repeating throughout his 300 page work.

Organisations should ‘speak through actions, not words’ he says, spin cannot protect businesses that say one thing and do another. Actions speak volumes and the empowered citizen public is listening intently.

This vision of Robert’s calls for sustainability; profit optimising, not maximising; calls for business to add real societal value, not simply ‘greenwash’ with CSR; calls for leaders to think of colleagues and customers before shareholders; calls for flattened hierarchies and the downfall of ‘tired elites’.

The Same Vision

 

For the most part I see the same vision as Robert Phillips – as much as someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum can – but I don’t agree that public relations has to die out for this vision to be realised. Robert’s future of public leadership is much the same as my future of public relations, differing slightly, but mostly in name.

In my view, the CIPR and its 10,000 or so members, are making real progress towards a more professional industry and taking steps towards becoming a more credible business discipline, especially those who are actively engaged with its work and are enrolled in CPD. But such significant change cannot happen overnight, we must give it time.

This book is less about the fitness of PRs to practice and more about businesses needing to get with the times, embrace change, be truthful and be transparent. It is about them being responsible and adding public value. It is about the long-term success, not the short-term gains. And, it is about our need as public relations people to evolve with business and not be left behind.

As Ketchum’s newly promoted Chief Engagement Officer, Stephen Waddington puts it (far more eloquently than I have): “Spin is dead and publicity may be dying but public relations, as a means of engagement between an organisation and its publics, is thriving.”

 

Matt Silver

Corporate & Technology PR bod at Ketchum with an interest in emerging technologies, online behaviours, sustainability & social business. Fond of fine food and drink. Member of CIPR & PRCA.

  • Lyndon

    An interesting review Matt, thank you.

    I don’t understand your use of the word trolling – it seems that anybody that proposes a different view to the established one is now labeled a troll… and that’s just not right. It seems to have become a term used to try to discredit somebody’s opinion – without most users understanding what it really means.

    I agree with much of what Robert said, but hadn’t until now, understood fully what Public Leadership was. I agree with the idea but it’s about establishing values [and acting on them] rather than communications. Public relations as a discipline [distinct from publicity] is still how it will be communicated – at least it should.

    As a 20-year PR I’ve not joined the PRSA, IPR or CPRS because, honestly, until they behave as leaders and actively advocate for the accurate delivery of the discipline, rather than seemingly promoting the publicity-centric PR services of the majority of its members, there’s nothing to be gained from being a member.

    Stephen Waddington’s point is well made – but not accurate. Most ‘PR’ companies continue to sell publicity services as public relations and have added social media [or social publicity, as it should be called] and content marketing. Most PR people don’t even understand the fundamentals of PR, let alone marketing!

    • Robert Phillips

      Thank you, Lyndon. Especially for making the “trolling” point. (I think the term was first used ironically by Arun Sudhaman about my relationship with what he called “sensitive industry types”.

      I was surprised by the number of people who, not having read the thesis or the context, refused to participate in open and honest debate about the industry’s future – especially those who responded early on with blind vitriol. Some of those, now having read the book, are saying “ah, he has a point”.

      That said, to Lyndon’s last para, i agree that “evolution” is not enough. It is an easy claim and excuse from those who still refuse to grapple with the fundamental failings of the industry, while still continuing to sell “stuff” and services. Communications needs better and can do better, too. “Evolution” is not enough.

      • Lyndon

        But isn’t blind vitriol what powers the internet these days Robert? Without it the world wide web would just be a tool for sharing ideas; social media platforms a forum for real-time conversation and debate… and where would the fun be in that?! 😉

        • Robert Phillips

          🙂 If you only read one thing today/ this week/ this year, read this by my good friend David Weinberger http://www.cluetrain.com/newclues. Beware the fools and marauders….

          • Apologies about the comment ‘swallowing’ earlier gentlemen, it seems an errant strand of code was preventing comments from nesting properly – hopefully fixed now!

            Further to your comments on Twitter (see below) and the above, I agree there are inherent flaws with the big agency network ‘dinosaur’ model – huge overheads, bureaucracy, continuous upselling to self-sustain to name a few, and these must be accepted and dealt with – however I’m not so sure they will be fatal when push comes to shove. An urgent rethink and reform is needed yes, and these large firms will likely have to downscale, but the halt in growth/downsizing of bloated businesses at the top of the tree is usually a sign of an industry maturing, not dying.

            I think Lyndon is correct in saying that there is often a distinct difference between what PR is, and what ‘PR’ does too. The lack of understanding he describes (I am in agreement), and lack of talent you note Robert (again, I agree), why do you think this is? Too many local/regional journos ‘switching sides’ and just doing media relations but calling it PR? Lack of qualified entrants to industry in junior roles? Poor (or non-existent) training, learning and development opportunities for PRs throughout careers?

            I’m in agreement with the vast majority of what is said in the book and also what has been said here, and while there may well be tougher times ahead, I think we should take PR for a calm and measured trip to the GP before we rush to call it an ambulance or indeed it’s time of death.

            ***

            Robert:

            @MattSilverPR @THINK_Lyndon i just posted a comment on your comment stream but disqus swallowed it….. 1/3

            @MattSilverPR @THINK_Lyndon Intention was absolutely NOT to be inflammatory and am surprised at those who jumped to early conclusions 2/3

            @MattSilverPR @THINK_Lyndon 3/3 Those trapped within dinosaur biz. models recognise their vulnerability – hence initial defensive response

            Lyndon:

            I think some do @citizenrobert @MattSilverPR but I think many are completely oblivious. They just don’t get it.

            Robert:

            @THINK_Lyndon @MattSilverPR Some innocently oblivious but others opt for wilful blindness and further damage industry’s health & reputation

            Lyndon:

            Agree @citizenrobert @MattSilverPR wilful blindness at the expense of their customers’ businesses for their own financial gain

          • Agreed, Robert – Cluetrain revisited as Newclues is a very powerful piece of work. Where Cluetrain was so prescient Newclues puts a stake in the ground about being careful about what we wish for. Net Neutrality and the walled gardens of the App particularly. A great listicle was thrown together shortly after Newclues was posted. I’ve been Tweeting various clues out for almost a month http://listicle.io/cluetrain/

    • For the avoidance of doubt, I didn’t call Robert a troll, or intend to discredit his opinion – far from it, I welcome his different view, it has after all given rise to this debate. I simply said he had engaged in trolling – defined by Indiana University as knowingly and deliberately posting inflammatory content in order to elicit an emotional or defensive response. Which is exactly what he did. Robert was arguing with the full weight of his thesis against those who knew its title and perhaps had seen his short video pitch. It is hardly surprising that people arguing against the house without full knowledge of the motion may rush to judgement and as Robert puts it ‘respond with blind vitriol’.

      My knowledge and experience of North American PR associations is not great enough to pass comment on their behaviour, but I understand what you’re saying. In fact I fear our PRCA is going the same way and I’m fast losing patience with them. The CIPR on the other hand I have much more time and respect for and seem to be pushing forward in the right direction.

      • Lyndon

        Hi Matt,

        I wasn’t suggesting you were calling Robert a troll – but the use of the word trolling can be misunderstood by some. I don’t agree that Robert’s posts were deliberately inflammatory. I’ve written similar things and have been accused of being a troll when, in reality, the poster uses it as a way to avoid a sensible discussion. My intent isn’t to deliberately inflame and I don’t believe it was Robert’s either. I don’t know for sure, but I take the position that you assume the best of everybody until proven otherwise.

        Not having full knowledge of a topic isn’t an excuse for jumping to conclusions and accusing somebody of being deliberately inflammatory. It’s more a reflection on the accuser than the person making the point. For avoidance of doubt, that’s not directed at you – more a comment on the use of the ‘trolling’ and ‘troll’ labels in the mainstream.

        I’ll definitely look in to the CIPR – it has been four years since I left the UK. I wasn’t that impressed during my PR career in the UK, but I’m ready to support any organization or individual that wants to try to fight for the credibility of our industry.

        Best wishes,

        Lyndon

        • A lot has changed in the last 12-18 months – a raft of changes to governance and staffing under the new CEO. Work being done to combat lack of diversity in industry and the gender pay/treatment gap. A push to encourage members to learn new skills and broaden their knowledge through CPD, attain accredited/chartered status, work towards professional qualifications. More focus on ethics and currently, the development of a competency framework for PR. The general consensus is overwhelmingly positive, and I’m inclined to agree.

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